Michelle Marie Arean (MMA): First off, I want to talk about you—how do you feel about this new role you’ve been given?
Joelle Desir (JD): It’s a pleasure to be general director because tourism is one of our eminent skills in Martinique and I think we must be strong in tourism because our island is a treasure. There is only one Martinique with lush vegetation, culture, friendly people, hospitality, good weather. I’m very honored to be in this place because I want everybody to know Martinique in the world, because we are the French touch and the Caribbean touch—we have both.
Karine Mousseau (KM): My position is a political one. It’s very important for me not to be confused with the role of being director. My responsibility is to share my vision; and my vision is “Martinique is Magnifique” and “Martinique loves you.”
Murriel Wiltord-Latamie (MWL): Our new logo is the letter M, and in French, M means love. That’s the message of love that’s she sending.
KM: I put my energy into this beautiful country that is Martinique. Tourism should carry our economy. I want to develop the economic sector. We need you, we need travel agencies to help us implement the vision. There are two sides to the story. The first side is the love we have for this island; and the other side is to develop our economy for tourism.
MMA: What does Martinique tourism mean to you?
KM: We have the chance to have everything at the same time. We have the French touch because we are part of France. We have gastronomy, romantic atmosphere, AOC designation rum, authentic people, and our own culture. And I work to preserve that culture. This is really the core of my vision.
Steve Bennett (SB): There’s a general way of tourism development in Martinique that’s different from other islands. The culture has to be part of the tourism development. It’s not developing tourism for the sake of tourism, it has to be Martinique, and it has to be authentic, so you’re not sort of selling out the destination just for tourism. There’s a style for tourism development there that I think is unique in the Caribbean.
KM: It’s like Steve’s in my mind. There are some places where it’s everything about tourism, but they lose the authenticity and the DNA, the soul of the destination. I truly believe that people go to places to discover other cultures, the different people, not just the beaches.
MMA: Looking at Caribbean tourism as a whole, where does Martinique fall in that landscape? What are its strengths and what are some of the challenges you see moving forward?
KM: No weakness (laughs). Our strengths is that we have so many. Of course, the landscape is a unique feature of the island of Martinique. Our main asset is the authenticity of our culture and people.
JD: When you visit Maritnique, you are a Martiniquais; the families include you in everything.
KM: Technical points are we have more and more flights from the U.S.: American Airlines from Miami, and Norwegian Airlines from New York, Boston, Washington, and Baltimore.
MWL: This is a high-level, low-cost flight with new aircraft, free WiFi, all the way to Martinique.
KM: It’s easier and easier to come to Martinique. That is very important, and we hope that we continue to improve and develop the flights. We have high level in gastronomy, lots of high-level chefs.
JD: We have been published as one of the five trendiest destinations in the Caribbean; Top 10 Best Honeymoon Destination in the World. And as Karine said, more and more customers who come to Martinique from the U.S. are really interested in this authenticity; the gourmet restaurants they can find easily, and great meals.
KM: We are a very safe destination.
JD: We have two new hotels: French Coco with 17 suites with swimming pool inside with luxury garden, near a fishing village; and a big downtown hotel in Fort de France, Le Simon Hotel, by a cruise terminal. The latter has a one-star Michelin chef.
SB: In Martinique, gastronomy is held at such a high level that chefs are celebrities there. You go around the island and they have these very distinct personalities. Whether they’re self-trained in Martinique, or they learned professionally abroad, there’s usually a mix of the different cooking styles of traditional French with local Creole. And the different flavors that come from that are very distinctive in the Caribbean. I don’t think there’s any place in the Caribbean that you have that kind of creativity coming together at that level. There are a lot of islands that say, “we are the culinary capital of the Caribbean,” and as a person from the Caribbean, who has been to 40 different places within the Caribbean, I can tell you that there’s no place with the food like in Martinique.
[It’s ideal for] the young millennial traveler who wants experiences, not just long buffet lines and beaches, Martinique is perfect for them because you have to explore.
MMA: If you had to choose a couple of words to differentiate Martinique from other islands in the Caribbean tourism landscape, what would those be?
KM: Authentic, welcoming, warm, friendly.
MMA: Under your helm, how important will cruise tourism be to Martinique tourism as a whole? Will it continue to play a major role?
KM: For the past five years we have seen an increase in cruise arrivals and we are working hard for it to continue. Yesterday we had a meeting with the FCCA committee with all the major players in the cruise industry. We are working to develop infrastructure in ports to offer the best welcome possible.
JD: We are able to welcome big ships, platinum-class ships.
KM: We are working actively to make sure the welcoming is done right. And we really want to develop excursions and provide more options for all visitors, not only cruise passengers but stay-over visitors as well.
MMA: It’s been stated that you will be focusing on the improvement of the quality of services — can you expand on that a bit? Where do those improvements lie?
KM: Yes, it’s very important for me. I think Martinique is naturally born to be welcoming. We need to make sure we learn to address this issue in a professional manner. We are really working on a policy and training. Training is really important for us.
JD: We have a program in the schools on the importance of tourism for kids to learn at a young age.
MMA: In terms of tourism, where do you see Martinique two or even five years from now?
KM: 1 million tourists—that’s the goal.
JD: Flights year-round from the U.S.; direct non-stop flights.
KM: We want to develop reception capacity in terms of hotel rooms and beds. Currently, we have about 8,000 beds and above 3,000 hotel rooms (not including villas and guesthouses). But, we want to do it while keeping the authenticity.
MMA: How important a role do you see travel agents playing in regard to helping tourism from the U.S. to Martinique grow going forward?
JD: They are very important to sell the destination; to know the destination and know all the skills there are in this place. The first point of contact with American people is the travel agent—it’s critical.
KM: It’s important for agents to meet us and to feel how Martinique is to reach the right customer.
One thing I have forgotten to say is that I want to encourage small hotels and not large hotels. I think that’s the economic strategy to keep this proximity and family structure. I encourage small structures like French Coco, boutique hotels that are family structures because I think that people want to experience that in Martinique.
We have a very interesting new product for visitors to meet the locals, the families of Martinique. Guests have [the opportunity to have] dinner at a local’s house and taste local Creole food. Guests can sign up online on our website under Beyond the Beach [12-15 percent commission for travel agents]. In addition, a new one that’s being developed is Vin a Kaz, which means, “come home.” That’s also a program to visit with families. Vin a Kaz is not opened yet, but will be soon. Also, on Karambole Tours you can try fruits and pastries while discovering the island. [To access visit, martinique.org]
SB: These are the top three ways to really meet the people.
MMA: Recommend, as you know, has an education program for travel agents — how important is this education program to growing tourism via the travel agent channel?
KM: It’s very interesting for us. I think it will be important for them to come to Martinique on a tour to discover the product. It’s very important to be in Martinique to feel it. It’s good to train, but also to experience it for themselves to be better agents.
MWL: It’s key because we need the travel agents to grow our development in terms of visitors from the U.S. So, we need to train them so they know about this fantastic destination that we have. So they know about the easy access and the affordable access that we have since last year and that it’s resuming this November. But also, to know about the access provided all year long from Miami with American Airlines. The training of the agents is really key. We are totally aware of that. We keep on it, and to develop our system of incentives and rewards to the travel agents that sell best and more Martinique.
SB: If agents know about Martinique it’s usually Recommend readers because of your program and your coverage.
Agents, to register for Recommend’s Martinique Specialist Program, visit edu.recommend.com/courses/19/martinique-specialist-program.